In two new reports released
Wednesday in Washington, D.C., the London-based organization said
the time appeared ripe for ending the execution of individuals for
crimes committed while they were still minors, especially following
a Supreme Court decision last June which found that the execution of
mentally ill people violated the U.S. constitutional protection
against cruel and unusual punishment.
"Multiple factors, including the fact that five states have
barred the death penalty for offenders under the age of 18 since the
last Supreme Court ruling, necessitate a new look at this noxious
human rights violation," said William Schulz, executive director of
the U.S. branch of Amnesty International (AIUSA). "Also, the battle
against capital punishment for juveniles will continue to rage in
state legislatures next year."
Amnesty said a major test could come as early as next month when
the Supreme Court may decide to review the case of Scott Hain who is
currently awaiting execution in Oklahoma. Hain, now 32, was
sentenced to death in 1994 for a murder he committed aged 17.
Earlier this month he appealed to the Supreme Court to review his
case in light of its June decision banning execution of mentally
The execution of people for crimes committed before the age of 18
is banned under all major international human rights treaties,
including the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since 1990,
only six countries--Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen,
and the U.S.--have executed people for crimes committed when they
In the past decade, two-thirds of all known executions of child
offenders were carried out in the U.S., according to the report.
"The United States is the world's leading perpetrator of this
universally condemned human rights violation," said Sue
Gunawardena-Vaughn, who directs AIUSA's Program to Abolish the Death
Eighty juvenile offenders are currently sitting on death row in
prisons across the U.S.
Thirty-eight states and the federal government have statutes
authorizing the death penalty for certain forms of murder. Of those
jurisdictions, 17 have expressly chosen age 18 at the time of the
crime as the minimum age for the imposition of the death penalty;
another five have chosen age 17; while the remaining 17 use age 16
either through state law or by court ruling, according to the Death
Penalty Information Center.
In a 1988 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of
offenders aged 15 and younger at the time of their crimes was
unconstitutional. One year later, however, the Court ruled in two
separate decisions that executions of mentally ill prisoners or
prisoners convicted of crimes committed when they were as young as
16 years old were permitted under the U.S. Constitution. Four out of
the nine justices who heard the case, however, dissented from the
majority decision, and even the majority gave notice that its views
could change, noting that a "national consensus" against capital
punishment in these cases had not yet developed.
Only five months later, the Convention on the Rights of the
Child, which explicitly prohibited the execution of minors, was
opened for signature. The treaty has since been ratified by a record
191 countries. The only countries which have failed to do so are
Somalia, which has had no recognized government since 1991, and the
In recent years, however, public opposition to using the death
penalty against mentally ill people and minors has appeared to grow.
A number of state legislatures have abolished the practice, and an
increasing number of state governors and judges have also spoken out
against the practice. President George W. Bush ( news
sites), who, as Texas governor, presided over the most
executions of any state during the 1990s, came out against capital
punishment for those with mental illnesses last year.
"In some respects, there are signs of a firmer, and certainly
longer-held, 'national consensus' against the execution of child
offenders," according to the Amnesty report. "The international
consensus on the juvenile issue is at least as strong as on the
mental retardation issue, and more explicit in international treaty
"If the Supreme Court were to ignore the clearer global picture
on the juvenile issue," it concluded, "it would be just one more
sign of the arbitrary nature of the death penalty in the USA."